Robert Libman: How Denis Coderre could help the Quebec Liberals

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Losing an election for any incumbent politician is a harsh blow to the ego, and a brutally abrupt job loss, which for many means uncertainty about their future. For a political animal like Denis Coderre, who relishes the spotlight, his loss to Valérie Plante in 2017 was particularly difficult after one term as mayor of Montreal, which had followed 16 uninterrupted years as a member of Parliament.

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Unable to resist, Coderre ran in 2021 and again tasted defeat. So the news this week about his interest in running for the Quebec Liberal Party leadership, at age 60, is seen by many as just another opportunistic pathway back into politics.

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The Liberals were decimated in the last election and have decided to wait until early 2025 to select a new leader. For many in the party, Coderre is damaged goods and his arrival on the scene is like a skunk at a garden party. And yet this is probably the best thing that can happen to the Liberals. Not necessarily because Coderre is the saviour who can immediately bring them back to where they can win the next provincial election, but because it thrusts the Liberal party back into the conversation. His media appeal and name recognition would elevate the leadership race into something much more interesting than the snooze fest few Quebecers seemed interested in.

High-profile names haven’t been busting down the door to run. MNA Frédéric Beauchemin has expressed an interest. Antoine Dionne Charest, at 35, is relatively unknown but an interesting prospect. He has been publishing think pieces on policy issues and individual rights, and advancing the narrative about Quebec’s “liberal-authoritarian” divide between liberal values and François Legault’s Coalition Avenir Québec. He has strong ideas and intellectual conviction, and is an effective debater, having put some of Quebec’s most ardent nationalist commentators on the defensive. He’s just a few years younger than his father when Jean Charest was recruited from Ottawa in 1998 to save the provincial Liberals. Although coy so far, Dionne Charest will likely run.

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With the Liberals facing an internal battle about how to better appeal to francophones, many will want the party to veer toward being more hawkish on language than their current incarnation that voted against Bill 96. You could be almost certain Coderre would seize that card. Although a federalist, this potential venture would likely be his last chance, and he would do anything he perceives would help curry favour with the majority. Let’s not forget that during the 2021 municipal election, his party dumped English Montreal School Board chair Joe Ortona as a candidate because the EMSB dared to oppose Bill 96.

Coderre does carry some baggage from his mayoralty but it’s not Montrealers the Liberals need worry about, as most Montreal ridings will vote for them regardless. Coderre is likable in person, charismatic and humorously self-deprecating. In the regions where the party desperately needs to make inroads, Coderre — “un gars de Joliette” — could make gains. But he would need to have answers to real issues, not just bluster. 

After the unexciting coronation of their last leader, Dominique Anglade, whose sole opponent had dropped out, the Liberals desperately need a spark. With a much higher profile contest thanks to Coderre, the race could become an interesting showdown between the younger generation — represented by Dionne Charest — against the old-school political showman vying for a comeback.

And at a time when voters are tired of slick career politicians, perceived as more interested in the position over ideas and genuine conviction, a win in a leadership contest by someone like Dionne Charest — highlighting his stark contrast with the Coderre mould — could greatly propel his chances in the ensuing general election.

Robert Libman is an architect and planning consultant who has served as Equality Party leader and MNA, as mayor of Côte-St-Luc and as a member of the Montreal executive committee. He was a Conservative candidate in the 2015 federal election. X @robertlibman

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